CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. — Former truck driver Jimmy Sowder and his wife, Sheila, worked in New Mexico last summer — he at a hardware store, she in the office and consignment shop of the RV park where they were staying.
Now they're working at an Amazon.com distribution center in Campbellsville, plucking everything from books to tools and toys off the shelves to fill Christmas orders.
After some time off, they'll look for jobs somewhere for February through April before heading to Maine to work at a campground from May to October.
That's the life of "workampers," people who live on the road most or all of the year, seeing the country as they work temporary jobs to help finance their footloose lifestyle.
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"That's the way I think everyone should be able to live," said Jimmy Sowder, 53. "It's the freedom of the road. We're doing what most people wanted to do when they were 20."
Campers have come to Taylor County from around the country to help Internet retail giant Amazon.com handle increased shipping demand at its Campbellsville center during the Christmas rush.
Some came as early as August, though most arrived in October and November. Many will work through Christmas Eve.
There are 500 to 600 campers staying in five parks while working at the distribution center, local officials said.
About 1,200 people work at the 780,000-square-foot facility year-round, but the company needs up to 2,000 additional temporary workers during the three-month Christmas season, said Ron McMahan, executive director of the Campbellsville-Taylor County Economic Development Authority.
Amazon.com hasn't been able to get all the seasonal workers it needs locally. There are still hundreds of jobs available at the Campbellsville facility, said Michele Glisson, an Amazon.com spokeswoman.
The company has about 50 such "fulfillment centers" worldwide. Many are in much larger labor markets, McMahan said.
Amazon.com started the center in Campbellsville in 1999, moving into a building where Fruit of the Loom had employed 2,500 people before closing.
Unemployment topped 25 percent in the late 1990s in Taylor County after the loss of Fruit of the Loom, Batesville Casket and other manufacturers, so it was welcome news when Amazon.com came to town.
The state approved the Seattle-based company for possible tax incentives of more than $27 million for facilities in Campbellsville and Lexington.
Amazon.com has bused in workers from elsewhere, including out of state, to work in Campbellsville, but stepped up efforts to recruit campers this year.
The company, local and state officials and businesspeople worked to expand the number of sites available for RVs and travel trailers.
At Green River Lake State Park, for instance, the state installed frost-free water taps and wireless Internet service to accommodate campers.
That cost is being offset by the extra revenue the park gets from renting sites.
The park would normally close at the end of October, but is staying open through the end of December for campers working at Amazon.com, said manager Sharon Abney.
Two separate businesses, Green River Resort and Heartland RV Park, built a total of about 150 camp sites with water, sewer, electricity and wireless Internet service, investing more than $500,000, owners said.
"We just saw an opportunity to make some money that wasn't there" before Amazon.com started recruiting campers, said Marie Taylor, a partner in Green River Resort.
The business, which also operates Green River Marina, built 68 RV sites and added a laundry and showers to the camp store.
"We're hoping that this will be big," Tucker said.
Amazon.com said if the program goes well this year, it could bring in 1,200 to 1,600 campers in 2011, McMahan said.
Campers working at Amazon said the company pays the rent on their camping sites.
They make $9.90 or $10.50 an hour on top of that, with the higher salary for the overnight shift. Many work four 10-hour days, but overtime is mandatory for some.
Most of the jobs are in receiving, which involves moving items from a conveyor onto carts; stowing the goods in the two million-plus bins in the center; and picking, which means retrieving the items from the bins to fill orders.
Read more of this story at Kentucky.com